Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Shot at Keeping Varicella Zoster at Bay

Polar Vortex, no big deal. The monster that concerns me is Varicella Zoster.

VZ is  the virus that causes both chickenpox and shingles. If you have had chickenpox, the virus stays in your system and can come roaring back to give you shingles. That is an icky thought -- the monster staying with you aways, lurking, ready to attack when you are least on guard.

When I was 34, I came down with what surely was one of the worst cases of chickenpox in human history. Chickenpox is much worse than usual when you get it as an adult. I was down for the count, out of work for two weeks, and suffering 24/7 those painful sores everywhere on my body imaginable (and some barely conceivable). It was the sickest I have ever been. I honestly thought I might die.

The thought has often occurred to me that if Varicella Zoster returned to do a number on me in my senior years, I might well come down with the worst case of shingles in human history. (It would figure, right?) Some of my senior friends have had that painful weird rash it brings, with debilitating effect for two to four weeks. For about one-fifth of sufferers, it can bring severe pain, called post-herpetic neuralgia, long after the rash disappears. It can lead to pneumonia, problems with hearing and sight, brain inflammation, or even death. No fun.

A shingles vaccine has been around since 2000 or so, but it seems to me it hasn't been touted all that much, at least until recent TV ads. It is pricey and insurance typically covers only maybe one-third or one-half the cost. While my doctors have pushed the flu and pneumonia shots, none of them ever discussed the shingles vaccine with me. 

Finally, upon seeing a new doctor with the start of the New Year, I mustered the courage to ask -- and she thought it would be a great idea for me to get the shingles shot! It is recommended as a single-shot deal for folks 60 and above; therefore, maybe I've been tempting fate going without it for more than a decade. So she wrote a script for my pharmacy. It doesn't provide a 100 percent guarantee any more than a flu shot does, but if you do still get shingles after being vaccinated, the experts say it could lessen the pain you might otherwise have experienced. I hope not to test that thinking. 

The official info sheet said that "no serious problems have been identified with shingles vaccine," while nevertheless offering a list of possible reactions ranging from mild to severe. Word is that any severe allergic reaction would be within a few minutes to an hour after the shot. So I went to the adjoining Starbucks, ordered my usual tall skim latte, and told the young barista to call the pharmacist if I started having a reaction like being out of breath or dizzy. I thought she was going to faint. I quickly told her I was fine and just kidding. I shouldn't be such a smart-aleck, but, hey, anything to get sympathy.

The pharmacist presumably wasn't kidding around when he told me after administering the shot that he had just injected a live virus in me, and that I might feel a little tired the rest of the day because "my immune system would be tested." Well, I do feel a little washed-out tonight, now that you mention it, and I will probably dream tonight about having angered the Varicella Zoster monster and provoked him into a wrathful attack mode.

Seriously, it's all good. I have taken a shot at protecting myself from experiencing the worst case of shingles in human history. Tomorrow, I will go back to walking and biking, and command the VZ monster go back into its lair.

                                                   © Robert G. Holland  2014  

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